Friday, October 31, 2014

Judge denies Sarah Johnson bid for acquittal

Ruling rejects DNA and Eighth Amendment arguments

Express Staff Writer

Fifth District Court Judge G. Richard Bevan has dismissed the latest attempt by convicted murderer Sarah Johnson for a new trial or acquittal.
Bevan issued his dismissal order on Monday in Johnson’s second case for post-conviction relief from the two life sentences she is now serving for the murders of her parents in 2003. The judge’s ruling followed arguments by Johnson attorneys Keith Roark and Dennis Benjamin and Deputy Attorney General Jessica Lorello, representing the state of Idaho, at a hearing in Twin Falls on Oct. 20.
    In his ruling, Bevan ordered that the case be “dismissed with prejudice,” a legal term that means the case with its current claims cannot be filed again. Nonetheless, that does not mean the case is necessarily over, as Johnson attorneys are now putting together arguments asking Bevan to reconsider his decision or to appeal the ruling to the Idaho Supreme Court.
    Johnson, convicted by a jury in 2005 of two counts of first-degree murder, is currently serving two life prison sentences without the possibility of parole for the murders of her parents, Alan and Diane Johnson, at the couple’s home in Bellevue on Sept 2, 2003.
    Johnson was 16 at the time. She is now 27.
    The current case is the second post-conviction case filed by Johnson. In the first case, filed in 2006 and dismissed by Bevan in 2011, Johnson argued that she was denied due process of law, that her trial was not conducted fairly and that she had ineffective legal counsel both during trial and during an appeal of her conviction.
    The new arguments in the second case were first filed in 2012 by Benjamin, of Boise, who originally worked on the case pro bono. Later that year, Bevan considered the possibility that the case had merit and assigned Roark, of Hailey, at Blaine County expense, to represent Johnson. Benjamin was brought back into the case this year as assistant counsel, at county expense, as a specialist in post-conviction-relief cases.
    In dismissing the case, Bevan rejected two basic Johnson claims put forward by Roark and Benjamin. First, they argued that new analytical techniques for DNA testing that were not available when the Johnson murders were investigated in 2003-2005 should now be used and that the results could point to a killer other than Johnson. Second, Roark and Benjamin argued that Johnson’s “fixed life sentences constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
    Regarding the DNA argument, Bevan wrote in his ruling that even if new testing was conducted, Johnson and her attorneys had not shown that the results could affect her conviction and sentence.
    Bevan noted that the possibility of a “third person” involved in the murders was presented during Johnson’s trial in 2005 and the jury then “considered this evidence and heard these arguments and still convicted Johnson of first-degree murder.”
    “At trial, a considerable amount of evidence was presented that placed Johnson at the scene and that linked her to the murders,” Bevan wrote. “Her stories were inconsistent and conflicted with the evidence.”
    The judge noted further that Johnson’s DNA was found on several pieces of evidence linked to the murders, that she had access to the murder weapon and that the “mountain of evidence” against Johnson was “overwhelming.”
    Regarding the Eighth Amendment issue, Roark and Benjamin referenced the case of Miller v. Alabama, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole are unconstitutional for juvenile offenders.
    However, Bevan rejected the Constitutional argument, noting first that it was “untimely” and should have been brought forward in Johnson’s first post-conviction-relief case, and noting second that “Idaho does not have a mandatory fixed life sentencing scheme” for either juveniles or adults and that Johnson’s sentence was “discretionary.”
    In an interview Thursday, Benjamin said that he and Roark will continue to pursue Johnson’s claims for a new trial or acquittal.
    “We’re going to file a motion for reconsideration on the DNA portion and then we’re just going to take up the Eighth Amendment portion on appeal,” Benjamin said. “And if the judge dismisses the DNA motion again, we’ll take that up on appeal too.
    “We’re going to move on it, no doubt,” Benjamin said. “We’ll file a motion supporting our argument to the court next week. I thought, and I think, we should do DNA testing.”
    Roark and Benjamin have been supported in the Johnson case by nationally renowned DNA expert Greg Hampikian, a professor of forensic biology at Boise State University and the director of the Idaho Innocence Project.
    “We’re still working on it,” Hampikian said in an interview Thursday. “We tried to get the DNA testing, but obviously it was not persuasive at this time.
    “Oh, I think we’ll get some DNA testing on this; it’s just a matter of how to get it done,” Hampikian said. We’ll have to do it through the legal process.”
    Both Benjamin and Hampikian have stated previously that they believe Johnson innocent.
    The Idaho Attorney General’s Office declined on Thursday to comment on the case.

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